Harford ambivalent toward Confederate history, symbols

'It's just where I'm from': Harford ambivalent toward Confederate symbols

Bob Wells is proud to fly a Confederate flag next to a Maryland one on the front yard of his Fallston home, where he has lived for two decades.

"It's just where I'm from. It represents my country, just like the Maryland flag," Wells, 80, said. "I am just a good old American boy, that's all."

A native of Norton, Va., who lived in Essex before moving to Harford County, Wells is unfazed by the recent controversy over pro-South symbols like his.

The X-shaped battle flag commonly called the "Confederate flag," in particular, has come under fire after a white suspect is accused of killing nine black people earlier this month inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.

But, the Confederate flag has had a ubiquitous presence in Harford County since Civil War days, when the county's residents were sharply divided between Union and Confederacy.

Since the June 17 shooting, many have called for the Confederate flag on South Carolina's state house grounds to be taken down, and general anti-Confederate sentiment has spread nationwide.

Companies like Walmart, Amazon and eBay will stop selling Confederate-themed goods. Gov. Larry Hogan wants Maryland to stop issuing license plates with the battle flag. A Confederate statue in Baltimore was defaced with graffiti reading "Black Lives Matter," joining several other such acts around the country.

"It's just a dumb thing, that's all I can say," Wells said of the current controversy. "Down South, they think the flag represents something bad. A lot of people get offended by that flag."

"It's just a flag," Wells said, adding he is not prejudiced. "It don't mean a thing toward black people."

Heritage and hate

Outside of private homes, however, public displays of the flag or other symbols of the Confederacy are often met with ambivalence in contemporary Harford.

Mike Blum, organizer of the Bel Air Independence Day Parade, is among those who have tried to downplay or tamp any pro-Confederate symbolism during the town's July 4 celebrations.

For Blum, enforcing the longtime event's policy against sectarian, partisan or otherwise divisive symbols comes first, and he said he has taken away Confederate flags from participants who tried to bring them into the parade.

"When I remove flags, they didn't like it," he said. "One young man said, 'That's my family's heritage.' I said, 'That's great, you can fly it at your family's picnic.'"

Kira Dare, leader of the Darlington Independence Day Parade until several years ago, said she would never have allowed such symbols in that parade, either. She did not remember any cases, however, where she actually had to remove items from parade entrants.

"I feel if someone had come with some sort of agenda, that I would have absolutely turned them away," she said.

Historic memorials to the Confederacy and people who fought for it remain prominent in Harford, from street names to portraits on the walls of the county's circuit courthouse.

Local history buff Jim Chrismer said the Main Street courthouse still holds far more Confederate-oriented portraits than those of Unionists.

Chrismer believes the county needs to work harder at memorializing its Union supporters and he has long disputed prominent Harford historian C. Milton Wright's suggestion that the county had equal numbers of Union and Confederate troops during the Civil War. Chrismer said there were definitely more Union soldiers.

Mr. Wright, a Harford school superintendent in the first half of the 20th Century wrote "Our Harford Heritage," the most widely cited general history of the county.

"I know of no monument to Union soldiers, and certainly not to the 200-plus black Union soldiers, anywhere in Harford County. The only Civil War markers, to my knowledge, are three [Confederate]-oriented signs, including the two Gilmor Civil War Trails placards and the 'Raid on Bel Air' on the Courthouse lawn," Chrismer said, referring to the only Civil War skirmishes fought in the county.

Chrismer also said Confederate flags started being flown from Southern capitols a century after the Civil War.

"The Ku Klux Klan has always used the Confederate battle flag, but the states did not begin changing their flags, did not start flying them until the Civil Rights Act of the 1960s," he said.

"It was the [former Alabama governor] George Wallaces, it was the [former Georgia governor] Lester Maddoxes, who started waving them in the faces of [former New York senator] Robert Kennedy and [former president] John F. Kennedy and all those Civil Rights people," he said.

Chrismer conceded some defenders of the flag have a point, because "the vast majority of the Confederate soldiers were not slave owners. The officers were, by and large, but the vast majority were not slave owners. Maybe they suffered from white supremacy, but so did people in the North."

But, he said, the flag on the Charleston state house grounds and others "should have gone years and years ago."

"If somebody really knew their history, they would have known from the moment George Wallace and all those people began using that flag, that was a symbol of hate," he said.

'Low-key'

Harford County's main claim to Confederate fame may be Confederate sympathizer and presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth, who was born in Bel Air. That story is chronicled at Tudor Hall, where Booth lived as a young man in a large family, whose own loyalties were divided between North and South.

But the most Confederate-oriented place in the county may be the cemetery at St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Abingdon, according to Beth Manchester, president of the Harford Chapter 114 of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

She organized a ceremony to recognize several Civil War-era graves there about four years ago. At that time, in 2011, Manchester said her group's members "basically try to preserve the history of the South" but "are not the ones who are out there pounding people, saying, 'The South shall rise again.' It's more low-key. It's more to honor our history."

About 35 to 40 people took part in a ceremony in August 2013 to honor a Confederate veteran at a Havre de Grace cemetery.

Members of United Daughters of the Confederacy Harford County Chapter 114 and the Lt. Col. Robert H. Archer Camp 2013 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans put together the ceremony in honor of Confederate Pvt. George Washington Bryant. A black Iron Cross was placed in the Bryant family plot in Angel Hill Cemetery, where Bryant's wife is buried. Bryant, who lived from 1839 to 1915, is buried along with other Confederate veterans in Loudon Park Cemetery in Baltimore.

Manchester declined Tuesday to comment on the new controversy over Confederate symbols, referring questions to the UDC's national president.

When St. Mary's Church was being assembled in the late 1840s, founding priest Father William Francis Brand had connections to the North and the South, cemetery historian Mary Moses said.

"It was not strictly a Confederate church," she said. "St. Mary's was sort of a place in the middle."

Moses, who has overseen the cemetery for the past five years, said Brand did "do a lot with Confederate soldiers" after the Civil War but downplayed the Confederate ties that Manchester asserted earlier.

Two graves at St. Mary's are decorated with an "Iron Cross," or Southern Cross of Honor, that was put there by UDC, she said.

"There was a concentration on the Confederate side, but you find it was equal," she said of St. Mary's connections.

"The church's feeling is for peace and prayers and understanding, for everyone to come together and find peace," Moses said.

Next to the church, a blue-and-white South Carolina flag flies on a tree outside Father Thomas Allen's rectory, facing Route 924.

Allen, a South Carolina native and rector at St. Mary's since 2011, put it up after the Charleston shootings because he said he wanted to show his support for the grieving state.

"It hurt when that happened," Allen said, his eyes filling with tears when asked about the murders at a historic black church. He said he knows a church organist who will be playing at one of the funerals.

"I just put the flag out because of solidarity with South Carolina. We are praying for my home state and the leaders," he said, adding he does not think the new controversy is really about Confederate symbols. "I think this goes deeper than that."

Growing up in rural Union, S.C., Allen, who is white, said Confederate symbols were few and far between, and he did not recall any conflict over them.

He showed a photo of his childhood flag football team from the 1970s, featuring both black and white players.

The priest did not know the state capitol had a Confederate flag until he went to seminary in 2000. He said "you could barely see" the flag on top of the building.

Allen does think the flag should be taken down, as do 90 percent of his South Carolina friends, "because it was put up in a dishonorable way, because it was put up by a Democrat who was a racist."

Allen said no symbol is "free from human sin" and fighting over symbols will not ultimately bring about forgiveness.

But, he also said, "you cannot put forth the idea of reconciliation with a flag like that."

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